What is Moonstone Arts Center, a center that has no center and, therefore, no boundaries?
Everything swirls around Larry Robin, bushy-bearded third-generation, and now former bookstore owner. His gravitational pull, his catholic interests, his enthusiasms, his ever-mutating curiosities in art, education, politics, history, and people make him — if not exactly the center, at least the disheveled maestro of Moonstone and the amazing diversity of voices that defines it.
Eleanor Wilner, 83, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, thinks of Moonstone “as the democratic center of writing in the city, and Larry Robin as the kind of master of the democratic rebels of literature — he’s open to everything and has made of Moonstone a place where everybody is welcome to speak, to listen to one another.”
Poet and photographer Lamont B. Steptoe, 72, much lauded recipient of an American Book Award and a Pew Fellowship, calls Moonstone “my graduate school.”
This year, Moonstone turns 40, and its offspring, Poetry Ink, a reading and publishing program, turns 25, and Larry and Sandy Robin, partners in life and in Moonstone, are celebrating with a weeklong set of readings on Zoom from July 19 to 24, beginning 7 p.m. nightly. All 300 poets who have participated in Poetry Ink programs for a quarter of a century have been invited to read. (Not to worry, says Larry Robin, “not everybody will show up.”)
There is also an anthology containing work by all of the poets, published by Moonstone Press, another Robin venture that publishes poetry chapbooks and longer works.
“Oh, my dear brother Larry became an institution of Philadelphia,” said renowned poet Sonia Sanchez, 86, one of the key voices of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and a Moonstone supporter for 40 years. She was there, for instance, in 1984 when several Black Philadelphia writers sat around on the second floor of the old Robin’s Bookstore on South 13th Street, across from the porno shop, and came up with the idea for an annual Celebration of Black Writing. Larry Robin embraced it.
“He did readings,” recalled Sanchez, “he did book signings, and also he always had an area for children, there were children’s books there, right. It was the most significant thing that I came into here in Philadelphia — every year you can rely on Larry doing this.”
Sanchez’s first reading at Robin’s bookstore in the early 1980s was on a Saturday morning.
“When I first moved here, brother Larry contacted me, and I actually did a reading,” she said “They used to have all of the readings, you know, upstairs. But I didn’t know that it really was for little children. I think the best place for me to do anything was to sit on the floor with the children, right, and, and we then read some little poems … that I had in my head. So that was my first introduction to the work that Larry, brother Larry, has done.”
Wilner likens Moonstone and the old Robin’s bookstore on South 13th Street to the fabled City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, run by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and ground zero for the West Coast Beat writers in the 1950s.
Poetry Ink began when the bookstore was going through a very shaky financial period (even more shaky than usual).
Wilner and poet Elaine Terranova sent out letters calling on the poetry community to join in support. The response was overwhelming.
“Elaine Terranova and I sent out a bunch of chain letters, and they spread in a way that things don’t spread unless they’re connected to all the circuits in the city of writing, that crosses all the lines from the academic to the street,” Wilner said. “And so everybody gathered to save Robin’s.
“That was the first Poetry Ink,” she said. “One hundred poets showed up. Everybody bought a book. And, again, we crossed all the lines in this city that are supposed to be borders and are not. So I just think of it as a place that erases borders and supports free speech on every level.”
There have been any number of Robin-Moonstone ventures that have achieved considerable cultural — if not always financial — success. There is the Moonstone Preschool, founded by Sandy, an artist and educator, in 1983. The annual Celebration of Black Writing, a swirl of readings and workshops begun in 1984, is now run by Art Sanctuary in North Philadelphia and has become a full-blown monthlong celebration of Black arts.
The Paul Robeson Festival, the Festival Cubano, the Hidden History program — all were seeded by Moonstone and Larry Robin. Not to mention the multiple Inks: Philadelphia Ink, Women’s Ink, Children’s Ink, Red Ink, and, of course, Poetry Ink.
Poetry without hierarchy
Poetry Ink is usually a six-hour community festival focused on poetry, period, not formal or informal, pro or amateur, street or academic. You sign up, you read, in alphabetical order. No hierarchies. Moonstone also has a regular Poetry Ink TV show on PhillyCam, and a series of weekly readings on Wednesday evenings at Fergie’s Pub, 1214 Sansom St.
This year’s serial marathon on Zoom will be exactly the same as past Poetry Ink events, though bigger, much bigger. And like the annual Poetry Inks of the past, it is accompanied by a book containing the work of the readers.
“It’s our biggest program and it embodies my philosophy, which is what we do is we invite everyone,” Larry Robin, 78, says. “It’s not an open reading, you have to sign up, but I turn nobody down, and then I put everyone in alphabetical order.
“And the reason is you don’t get to read with your friends and you don’t get to say, ‘Oh, I only like so and so’ or ‘I only like spoken word,’ because you don’t know who’s going to be reading before you and after you. It forces you to listen to people and styles of poetry and people with their own backgrounds that you would never have gotten to hear, but they just happened to be the next person in line.”
Stretching back 40 years, it’s fair to say that thousands of writers have taken to the mic during readings sponsored by Moonstone, including South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus, U.S Poet Laureates Rita Dove and Daniel Hoffman, Amiri Baraka, Stephen Dunn, Yolanda Wisher (and every other Philadelphia poet laureate). Pete Seeger appeared twice.
‘Can you come in and do a panel?’
“What I found really wonderful about Larry is that he was always up on what was going on in the country, not just in Philadelphia,” says Sanchez. “He would always have something going on during the year, and he had enough nerve to call me and say, ‘Look, I can’t pay you anything, right. Can you come in and do a panel with me, with a bunch of people or can you recommend someone or can you bring someone with you?’
“And I would say, ‘Well OK.’ This is my history, certainly coming out of the Black Arts — we always did things like that, you know, because we thought it was important to bring that information to the people, but he did this consistently, and in the city of Philadelphia.”
For Steptoe, a veteran of the Vietnam War who has written extensively about that harrowing experience, Moonstone is significant for “it’s radicalism.”
“Universities in this area,” he says, offer programs that are “part of the academy, and very conservative.”
But “Larry’s Celebration of Black Writing was always about bringing in more strident voices who held the empire’s feet to the fire. That’s what separated it from all these other literary things going on around this town. One time I was booked in 2014 at Drexel University. And there was a professor there who said, Lamont Steptoe’s a radical. He’s a militant. We shouldn’t be exposing our students.”
But Robin’s philosophy, one that governs all Moonstone-related programs — from readings to preschool — is that art feeds the brain. It’s a critical part of education, regardless of age or institutional affiliation.
“He was the first one to make his bookstore a really open bookstore for all writers,” said Wilner.
Sanchez, Steptoe, and Wilner will all be participating in the Zoom celebration. Sanchez will read Friday, July 23, Steptoe and Wilner on July 24. But it all depends on who shows up. The 25th Anniversary 2021 Poetry Ink Anthology, is available online from Moonstone.
Links to each evening’s Zoom reading, plus a list of all invited poets, can be found on the Moonstone website, moonstoneartscenter.org.